The long and incendiary reign of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh shows no sign of ending quietly as fresh bloodshed threatens the nation amid efforts by U.S. and European officials to ease weeks of protest and dangerous political maneuvering that could ignite a civil war.
At least 11 people were killed Monday when police opened fire for the second consecutive day on tens of thousands of protesters in the southern city of Taiz. In the Red Sea town of Hudaydah, hundreds of demonstrators were wounded when security forces shot tear gas and bullets to halt a predawn march on the presidential palace.
Yemen is inured to rebellions and tribal violence, but the rising death toll has added an unnerving dimension to Saleh’s characteristic brinkmanship. Chaos swells in the provinces, and in the capital, Sana, the mood is tense as soldiers clash with demonstrators and an embattled president refuses to relinquish power even as foreign and domestic allies abandon him.
“The concern is that we will replace one oligarchy with another,” said a Yemeni official who asked not to be named. “But Saleh won’t last beyond this year. The U.S. and the Europeans are mediating to facilitate his departure. But the exact timeline will be determined by the opposition and Saleh himself.”
The larger worry, especially among neighboring Saudi Arabia and Western countries, is which tribal or military forces would fill the vacuum to govern a nation confronting deep poverty, a secessionist movement and a resurgent Al Qaeda affiliate. Yemen’s strategic location at the crosscurrents of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa has made it a key element in Washington’s counter-terrorism efforts.
The State Department said Monday that the Obama administration has been privately pressing Yemen’s president to step down since anti-government protests began two months ago, despite his collaboration with the United States against violent extremist groups in the country.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein has been sitting in on the regular meetings of the Yemeni government and opposition aimed at reaching a compromise and a new government.
Opposition leaders and the president have been discussing a deal for the mercurial leader to cede authority to a temporary government until new elections are held. The talks have intensified since at least five top military commanders defected last week. But questions about Saleh’s immunity from prosecution and the fate of his family, including his son and other relatives who run military and intelligence services, have not been resolved.
A five-point plan offered by the opposition on Saturday left such issues purposefully vague. Its demands included that Saleh, who has ruled for 32 years, hand power to Vice President Abdu Rabu Hadi and that security forces be restructured under a “transitional military council.”
The first priority “is an immediate resignation,” said Yasin Said Numan, head of the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party and a major interlocutor of the recent talks. “This is a logical proposal … to avoid scenarios of violence and killing. The protesters have their priorities, and we as a political organization have ours.”
Any agreement allowing remnants of Saleh’s inner circle to remain in charge is likely to be rejected by protesters who have been demanding that the state be purged of the president and his cronies. Ever since the March 18 massacre of 52 demonstrators by pro-government gunmen, opposition figures and protesters have been calling for the president’s prosecution for crimes against humanity.
“He should leave for his safety,” said Hamid Ahmar, a powerful tribal leader and a multimillionaire businessman. “After the crimes he has committed, he cannot stay.”
Saleh’s comments over the last week have indicated he is searching for a graceful exit. Although many of his statements echo with defiance, Saleh has suggested he would turn over his office to “clean hands,” meaning officials he trusted. He told supporters Sunday, “We are ready to discuss transferring power, but in a peaceful and constitutional framework.”
Such rhetoric has not stemmed violence. In Taiz, a march from the demonstrators’ encampment to the provincial headquarters Monday was quashed by police and sniper gunfire that killed at least 11 protesters.
Photographs from the scene showed unarmed demonstrators baring their chests to police in riot gear, along with images of bloodied men’s gaping wounds and corpses partially wrapped in shrouds.
Marching in solidarity with the residents of Taiz, activists in the impoverished port city of Hudaydah were also fired upon with live ammunition by uniformed security personnel and plainclothes gunmen late Sunday and Monday morning. Residents described a procession from a sit-in colony at the city’s main plaza, recently dubbed “freedom square,” to the president’s local residence.
“As always, the protesters were totally unarmed. They faced a wave of bullets and countless grenades,” said journalist Ali Sakkaf, who witnessed the events. “There have been over 300 wounded victims. Violence of this kind and ferocity has never been witnessed in Hudaydah.”
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and a special correspondent in Sana contributed to this report.